Reform for Illinois’ Statement on the Voter Empowerment Project Released by GOP Legislators

This week, Republicans in the Illinois House and Senate introduced a package of three constitutional amendments branded as the “Voter Empowerment Project.” Reform for Illinois is always eager to work with groups interested in reforming Illinois government to make it more responsive to the needs of the people. While we do not agree with everything in these proposals, they contain vital steps in the right direction. We hope they become part of a rich and bipartisan discussion about how best to strengthen democracy in our state.

The proposed amendment to expand citizens’ ability to make changes to the state constitution would bring Illinois into line with many other states that allow citizens to propose and pass meaningful policy changes. While Illinoisans are technically allowed to circulate petitions to put some types of amendments on the ballots, courts have interpreted the existing initiative process in the constitution so narrowly as to render it almost entirely ineffective.

In our state, it is all too common to see entrenched powers refuse to enact essential policies for fear it would weaken their own authority. This is particularly true in areas like ethics and redistricting. Citizen-driven initiatives can help address this problem. For instance, in 2018, citizen initiatives brought independent redistricting to Michigan and other states, a wildly popular policy that the Illinois legislature has repeatedly failed to act on.

Voters in Colorado have also used the initiative process to bypass politicians and approve a constitutional amendment with anti-corruption measures including an independent state ethics commission with strong investigative and enforcement powers to increase accountability for public officials. Meanwhile, despite scandal after scandal, calls to reform Illinois’ toothless Legislative Inspector General’s office have fallen on deaf ears.

We are aware of the potential pitfalls of opening up the referendum process, and hope to see a statewide discussion about how we can empower citizens while avoiding the excesses seen in some other states and protecting the rights of individuals, particularly those who are already vulnerable. The provision included in the amendment to prevent changes to the state constitution’s Bill of Rights is a good starting point for this conversation.

We have some concerns about the proposed amendment to allow citizens to overturn acts of the General Assembly through a referendum. It is crucial to balance the desire for voter empowerment with the reality that campaign spending on ballot questions is nearly impossible to regulate, as evidenced by the more than $100 million spent last year for and against the graduated income tax amendment, the vast majority of it by billionaires. We should also bear in mind the experiences of states like California, where companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash collectively spent more than $200 million to support the passage of an initiative that effectively overturned a state law requiring such companies to classify workers as employees rather than independent contractors.

Finally, while the amendment to expand Illinois’ existing recall process for the governor to include other statewide officials, legislators, and local officials could be considered a logical means of increasing politicians’ accountability to their constituents, it raises some concerns as well. This includes the power it would give to wealthy individuals and interest groups to spend large sums of money to target elected officials with frivolous recall efforts. We are open to discussions of expanding recalls in Illinois beyond the office of the governor, but for the time being, we believe that energy for reform is better spent elsewhere.

Reform for Illinois applauds the Senate and House Republicans who introduced these resolutions for centering questions of how we can make democracy work for voters and hopes to collaborate with legislators on both sides of the aisle in bringing meaningful reform to our state.


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